The Flavian, Nervan-Antonin, and Severan Dynasties

The Flavian Dynasty

Following Augustus’ death, power passed to his heir, Tiberius, who continued many of the emperor’s policies but lacked the strength of character and vision which so defined Augustus. This trend would continue, more or less steadily, with the emperors who followed: Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Nero’s suicide ended the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and initiated the period of social unrest but ultimately found stability under the emperor Vespasian. Vespasian founded the Flavian Dynasty which was characterized by massive building projects, economic prosperity, and expansion of the empire. Vespasian ruled from 69–79 CE, and in that time, initiated the building of the Flavian Amphitheatre (the famous Colosseum of Rome) which his son Titus (ruled 79–81 CE) would complete.

Titus’ early reign saw the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE which buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Ancient sources are universal in their praise for his handling of this disaster as well as the great fire of Rome in 80 CE. Titus died of a fever in 81 CE and was succeeded by his brother Domitian who ruled from 81–96 CE. Domitian expanded and secured the boundaries of Rome, repaired the damage to the city caused by the great fire, continued the building projects initiated by his brother, and improved the economy of the empire. Even so, his autocratic methods and policies made him unpopular with the Roman Senate, and he was assassinated in 96 CE. (68)

Art During the Flavian Dynasty

Flavian Amphitheatre

Upon his succession, Vespasian began a vast building program in Rome that was continued by Titus and Domitian. It was a cunning political scheme to garner support from the people of Rome.

Vespasian transformed land from Nero’s Domus Aurea into public buildings for leisure and entertainment, such as the Baths of Titus and the Flavian Amphitheatre. Nero’s private lake was drained and became the foundations for the amphitheater, the first permanent amphitheater built in the city of Rome. Before this time, gladiatorial contests in the city were held in temporary wooden arenas.

The amphitheater became known as the Colosseum for its size, but in also in reference to a colossal golden statue of Nero that stood nearby. Vespasian had the colossus reworked into an image of the sun god, Sol. (70)

The building of the amphitheater began under Vespasian in 72 CE, and was completed under Titus in 80 CE. Titus inaugurated the amphitheater with a series of gladiatorial games and events that lasted for 100 days.

During his reign, Domitian remodeled parts of the amphitheater to enlarge the seating capacity to hold 50,000 spectators and added a hypogeum beneath the arena, for storage and to transport animals and people to the arena floor. The Colosseum was home not just to gladiatorial events — because it was built over Nero’s private lake, it was flooded to stage mock naval battles.

Picture of the outer exterior of the Colosseum with three rows of vaulted arches.
Figure 5-24: The Colosseum in Rome by Paul Zangaro is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Like all Roman amphitheaters, the Colosseum is a free-standing structure, whose shape comes from the combination of two semi-spherical theaters. The Colosseum exists in part as a result of improvements in concrete and the strength and stability of Roman engineering, especially their use of the repetitive form of the arch. The concrete structure is faced in travertine and marble.

The exterior of the Colosseum is divided into four bands that represent four interior arcades. The arcades are carefully designed to allow tens of thousands of spectators to enter and exit within minutes. Attached to the uppermost band are over two hundred corbels which supported the velarium — a retractable awning to protect spectators from sun and rain. The top band is also pierced by a number of small windows, between which are engaged composite pilasters.

The three bands below are notable for the series of arches that visually break up the massive facade. The arches on the ground level served as numbered entrances, while those of the two middle levels framed statues of gods, goddesses, and mythical and historical heroes. Columns in each of the three Greek orders stand between the arches. The Doric order is located on the ground level, Ionic on the second level, and Corinthian on the third. The order follows a standard sequence where the sturdiest and strongest order is shown on bottom level, since it appears to support the weight of the structure, and the lightest order at the top. However, despite this illusion the engaged columns and pilasters were merely decorative. (70)

Arch of Titus

Picture of the Arch of Titus. The Arch is a two-column structure with a large archway within it. Atop the archway is an inscription which indicates that the arch was erected after the death of the emperor.
Figure 5-25: Arch of Titus by Jebulon is licensed under Commons CC0 1.0 Universal

Following his brother’s death, Domitian erected a triumphal arch over the Via Sacra, on a rise as the road enters the Republican Forum. The Arch of Titus honors the deified Titus and celebrates his victory over Judea in 70 CE. The arch follows the standard forms for a triumphal arch, with an honorific inscription in the attic, winged Victories in the spandrels, engaged columns, and more sculpture which is now lost.

Inside the archway at the center of the ceiling is a relief panel of the apotheosis of Titus. Two remarkable relief panels decorate the interior sides of the archway and commemorate Titus’s victory in Judea. (10)

The southern panel inside the arch depicts the sacking of Jerusalem. The scene shows Roman soldiers carrying the menorah (the sacred candelabrum) and other spoils from the Temple of Jerusalem.

The opposite northern panel depicts Titus’s triumphal procession in Rome, awarded in 71 CE. In this panel, Titus rides through Rome on a chariot pulled by four horses. Behind him a winged Victory figure crowns Titus with a laurel wreath. He is accompanied by personifications of Honor and Valor.

This is one of the first examples in Roman art of humans and divinities mingling together in one scene; indeed, Titus was deified upon his death. These panels were originally painted and decorated with metal attachments and gilding. The panels are depicted in high relief and show a change in technical style from the lower relief seen on the Ara Pacis Augustae. (70)

A relief from within the Arch of Titus detailing a procession of Roman soldiers carrying loot from the Jewish temple, among which includes a menorah.
Figure 5-26: Detail from Arch of Titus by A. Hunter Wright is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Nervan-Antonin and Severan Dynasties

Domitian’s successor was his advisor Nerva who founded the Nervan-Antonin Dynasty which ruled Rome 96-192 CE. This period is marked by increased prosperity owing to the rulers known as The Five Good Emperors of Rome. Between 96 and 180 CE, five exceptional men ruled in sequence and brought the Roman Empire to its height: Nerva (96–98), Trajan (98–117), Hadrian (117–138), Antoninus Pius (138–161), and Marcus Aurelius (161–180). Under their leadership, the Roman Empire grew stronger, more stable, and expanded in size and scope.

Lucius Verus and Commodus are the last two of the Nervan-Antonin Dynasty. Verus was co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius until his death in 169 CE and seems to have been fairly ineffective. Commodus, Aurelius’ son and successor, was one of the most disgraceful emperors Rome ever saw and is universally depicted as indulging himself and his whims at the expense of the empire. He was strangled by his wrestling partner in his bath in 192 CE, ending the Nervan-Antonin Dynasty and raising the prefect Pertinax (who most likely engineered Commodus’ assassination) to power.

Pertinax governed for only three months before he was assassinated. He was followed, in rapid succession, by four others in the period known as The Year of the Five Emperors, which culminated in the rise of Septimus Severus to power. The Severan Dynasty continued, largely under the guidance and manipulation of Julia Maesa (referred to as `empress’), until the assassination of Alexander Severus in 235 CE which plunged the empire into the chaos known as The Crisis of the Third Century (lasting from 235–284 CE). (68)

Art During the Nervan-Antonin and Severan Dynasties

Sculpture During the Nervan-Antonin Dynasty

This is a photo of a bust of Nerva. The portraiture of Nerva and later of Trajan display an increasing militaristic look.
Figure 5-27: Portrait of Nerva, Roman emperor by unknow artist from Wikimedia is licensed underPublic Domain

Nerva’s portraiture followed the style of imperial portraiture during the Flavian era. The few portraits that remain from the two years of his rule depict a man with a receding hairline and small mouth. The portraiture of Nerva and later of Trajan display an increasing militaristic look.

Hadrian, Trajan’s adopted son and heir, peacefully became emperor in 117 CE. He was a great lover of Greek culture and wore a closely trimmed beard in the style of Classical Greek statesmen, such as the Athenian Pericles. Hadrian set a fashion for beards among Romans, and most emperors after him also wore a beard. Prior to Hadrian nearly all Roman men were clean shaven.

This photo shows a bust of Hadrian. Hadrian set a fashion for beards among Romans, and most emperors after him also wore a beard.
Figure 5-28: Bust of Hadrian, emperor by unknown artist is licensed under Public Domain

Commodus also believed he was the reincarnation of Hercules and claimed power from Hercules’s father, Jupiter. He even commissioned portraits of himself as Hercules. These portraits show him with the now-traditional imperial style of thick, curly hair and a curly beard. Hercules’s lion skin is draped over his head and around his shoulders and he often carries a club and sometimes the apples of the Hesperides. (71)

This is a bust of Commodous in which the bearded emperor wears lion headdress emblematic of his belief that he was a reincarnation of Hercules.
Figure 5-29: Bust of Commodus as Hercules by Marie-Lan Nguyen is licensed under Public Domain
A bust of a Flavian woman. The fashionable style among women during the reign of the Flavians involved hairpieces and wigs to create a stack of curls on the crown of the head.
Figure 5-30: A bust of a Flavian woman by unknown artist from Wikimedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
A bust of Trajan's Neice, Matidia. Like the Flavians, Matidia's hair stands in a stack, but unlike the Flavians, her hair stands in flat layers than in curls.
Figure 5-31: Bust of Salonina Matidia by unknown artist from Wikimedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The women of imperial families set the standards of fashion and beauty during the reigns of their husbands or other male family members. These women also established the hairstyles of the period, which are so distinctive that busts and statues are easily dated to specific decades in accordance with the hairstyle of the woman depicted.

During the Nervan-Antonine period, the portraits of imperial women and their hairstyles kept some Flavian flavor but were simpler than they had been. The fashionable style among women during the reign of the Flavians involved hairpieces and wigs to create a stack of curls on the crown of the head. (71)

Architecture During the Nervan-Antonin Dynasties

Public Building Programs

Public building programs were prevalent under the emperors of the Nervan-Antonine dynasty. During this period of peace, stability, and an expansion of the empire’s borders, many of the emperors sought to cast themselves in the image of the first imperial builder, Augustus. The projects these emperors conducted around the empire included the building and restoration of roads, bridges, and aqueducts. In Rome, these imperial building projects strengthened the image of the emperor and directly addressed the needs of the citizens of the city. (72)

Trajan’s Forum

This is the ground plan of the Forum of Trajan and Trajan's Markets. From above, a large square courtyard sits as the entryway to the rectangular civic building on the way to Trajan's temple.
Figure 5-32: Map of Imperial Trajan’s forum in ancient Rome by 3coma14 & Cristiano64 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Trajan’s Forum was the last of the imperial fora to be built in the city. The forum’s main entrance was accessed from the south, near to the Forum of Augustus as well as the Forum of Caesar (which Trajan also renovated). The Forum of Augustus might have been the model for the Forum of Trajan, even though the latter was much larger. Both fora were rectangular in shape with a temple at one end. Both appear to have a set of exedra on either side.(72)

Trajan built his forum with the spoils from his conquest of Dacia. The visual elements within the forum speak of his military prowess and Rome’s victory. A triumphal arch mounted with an image of the emperor in a six-horse chariot greeted patrons at the southern entrance.

In the center of the large courtyard stood an equestrian statue of Trajan, and additional bronze statues of him in a quadriga lined the roof of the Basilica Ulpia, which transected the forum in the northern end. This large civic building served as a meeting place for the commerce and law courts. It was lavishly furnished with marble floors, facades, and the hall was filled with tall marble columns.

The Basilica Ulpia also separated the arcaded courtyard from two libraries (one for Greek texts, the other for Latin), the Column of Trajan, and a temple dedicated to the Divine Trajan. (72)

Trajan’s Markets

Trajan’s markets were an additional public building that the emperor built at the same time as his forum. The markets were built on top of and into the Quirinal Hill. They consisted of a series of multi-leveled halls lined with rooms for either shops, administrative offices, or apartments. The markets follow the shape of the Trajan’s forum.

A portion of them are shaped into a large exedra, framing one of the exedra of the forum. Like Trajan’s forum, the markets were elaborately decorated with marble floors and revetment, as well as decorative columns to frame the doorways. (72)

Picture of Trajan's Markets as they appear today. In the foreground lay the remains are that of an open courtyard littered with stone ruins. In the background are the remains is a partially spherical two-storied building that once served as the Roman marketplace.
Figure 5-33: Trajan’s Market panorama from Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Architecture During the Severan Dynasty

Baths of Caracalla

Caracalla was one of the last emperors of the century who had the time, resources, and power to build in the city of Rome.

His longest-lasting contribution is a large bath complex that stands to the southeast of Rome’s center. It covered over 33 acres and could hold over 1,600 bathers at a time. Bathing was an important part of Roman daily life, and the baths were a place for leisure, business, socializing, exercising, learning, and illicit affairs.

These baths not only held the traditional bathing pools but also exercise courts, changing rooms, and Greek and Latin libraries. A mithraeum has also been found on the site.\ (73)

Architecturally, the Baths of Caracalla demonstrate the impressive mastery of Roman building and the importance of concrete and the vaulting systems developed by the Romans to create large and impressive buildings with ceilings that span great distances. The building was lavishly decorated with marble veneer, fanciful mosaics , andmonumental Greek marble statues. (73)

Picture of the outer remains of the Baths of Caracalla. In the foreground, there is an open courtyard leading up towards the entrance to baths. In the background are the remains of the baths themselves, with two large towers standing at the entryway of the principle facade and the great courtyard just beyond it.
Figure 5-34: Baths of Caracalla, Rome by Ethan Doyle White is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
This is a drawing of the Baths of Caracalla. This artist's reconstruction shows a groin-vaulted interior, Composite columns, and decorative panels on the ceiling. Human figures have been added for scale.
Figure 5-35: A drawing of the Baths of Caracalla. The original uploader was Dinah at German Wikipedia is licensed under Public Domain

Quirinal Hill Serapeum

In 212, Caracalla erected a temple (called a Serapeum) on Quirinal Hill dedicated to the Egyptian god Serapis, a human-headed deity who shared Greek and Egyptian attributes. This Serapeum was, by most surviving accounts, the most sumptuous and architectonically ambitious of those built on the hill.

The temple covered over three acres. It was composed by a long courtyard (surrounded by a colonnade) and by theritual area, where statues and obelisks were erected. Designed to impress its visitors, the temple boasted columns nearly 70 feet tall and over six feet in diameter, sitting atop a marble stairway that connected the base of the hill to the sanctuary .

The ruins of the Serapeum show a mixture of brick and concrete with a regular use of the round arch. Symbolically, the temple signified the diversity that the Roman pantheon had reached by the third century. (73)

The ruins of the Serapeum show a mixture of brick and concrete with a regular use of the round arch.
Figure 5-36: The ruins of the Serapeum by JoEhSJ (assumed) is licensed under Public Domain